They've come a long way from their lives as architects in Camaguey, Cuba. Alberto & Grace Paneca fled to Florida in 1999 and settled into Lake County in 2002. Much like how they transformed their lives, the family turned a darkened, run-down space into a bright, thriving restaurant in downtown Mount Dora.
This month the couple, along with their daughter and son-in law, Juliet and Beni, and partner Antonio Reyes, are celebrating the seventh anniversary of their mega-popular restaurant, Copacabana Cuban Cafe.
As the area's first Cuban restaurant, the family was tasked with introducing the island's authentic cuisine to Mount Dorans. Distinctly different than Mexican food, Cuban cuisine flavorfully blends the spices and techniques of Spanish, African, China, the Caribbean and Native Taino cuisines.
"It was a pleasure to introduce Cuban cuisine to the town and see our customers' reactions, and then see them returning again and again," said Juliet.
Most of the family recipes came from Alberto's mother and uncles who were chefs in Cuba. Today diners enjoy their favorite traditional dishes including their Palomilla steak, Pernil (roasted pork), Cuban sandwiches, Masitas de Puerco (fried pork chucks), and seafood specialties like Paella and fried Red Snapper. Of course, a visit there wouldn't be complete without at least one perfectly muddled mojito.
"Having lived in Miami for years, this restaurant's food isas authentically Cuban as you can find anywhere. We go out of our way to come here", said customer Sheri Bustillo who travels regularly from out of town to eat at Copacabana.
The friendly, close-knit family chose Mount Dora because it reminded them of quaint towns in Cuba. Since opening in 2009, the family has become part of the fabric of the downtown community.
"We've enjoyed watching our customers' families grow up. They feel like a part of us," said Juliet.
Alberto is a warm and recognizable personality in Mount Dora. His genuine hospitality and passion for Cuban culture makes him Copacabana's beloved patriarch. The Paneca's credit their hardworking team, strong bond with their customers and the consistent high quality of their food as the secrets to their Mount Dora success.
In an effort to thank the community, Copacabana will host an anniversary celebration on March 25 & 26 featuring food and drink specials, including two-for-one mojitos, and live music by Bongos Band. There will also be a fun Cuban cooking demonstration for kids from 4-5 on Saturday.
Tucked next to Goblin Market restaurant at 320 Dora Drawdy Way, Copacabana Cuban Cafe is open seven days a week for lunch and dinner.
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